In August 2012 the following feature appeared in The Bristol Magazine. It is published here with their permission.
An update on this story will appear on SkyLightRain soon.
Recently community leaders in Bedminster, Bristol, celebrated an unexpected windfall. After putting together a bid explaining the ways in which the district’s high streets could be improved, Ben Barker, George Grace and a number of others in Bedminster put it forward for the Government’s Portas Pilots competitiaon. The scheme, launched in response to a review of the UK’s high streets by retail expert Mary Portas, sought 12 communities to allocate up to £100,000 to each.
“The applications to become ‘Portas Pilots’ were judged against five criteria – mix, leadership, commitment, potential for improvement and innovation,” explains Alice Darley, Head of Regeneration Strategy at the Department of Communities and Local Government. “There were over 370 applications in round one of the competition, so the Bedminster Town Team did really well to be one of the 12 selected.”
Once the initial thrill of winning the fund died down, the freshly formed Bedminster Town Team faced a new challenge – that of deciding how best to spend the money to make the biggest, and longest lasting, impact possible.
While the area of North street closest to the Tobacco Factory already appears to be doing well for itself, you only need to walk a few metres towards East and West Streets to get a clear sense of a need for improvements, as empty shops loom alongside derelict buildings.
Vicky Harrison who runs Paper Village on North Street, adds, “It’s equally important to get the people who live here to shop here! So many people go outside of Bedminster to do their shopping, when actually everything they need to buy is available right here.”
Proposed plans include the use of Bedminster’s empty shops as temporary arts and events spaces managed by Pop-Up Bristol, and regular performances of street theatre via the Show of Strength theatre company.
Vicky has experienced first hand how interactive events can draw new customers. “At Paper Village we recently held an event where people were invited to come and knit and crochet budgies in aid of Children’s Hospice South West,” she says. “The upshot was that we had not only workshop participants coming in, but their friends and families, as well as other people who just wanted to know what was going on – the business generated was phenomenal.”
Stephen Hayles from urban art organisation Upfest is certain that street art will be key to the Town Team’s success. “Upfest 2012 attracted 20,000 people to North Street over the Jubilee Bank Holiday Weekend,” Stephen says. “We plan to build on this proven concept to create an area-wide internationally recognised street art trail.”
Local artist and resident Glen Eastman sees the main challenge as giving people a reason to visit the areas between the Asda end of East Street and the Tobacco Factory end of North Street. “Between these busy areas is the rather forlorn Cannon Street/Gala Bingo Hall end,” she says. “I shop and walk from one end of East Street to the far end of North Street – from the Bedminster Library to Mark’s Bread near the Brewery Theatre. It would be great to have a little entertainment on the way up the street to encourage and reward the effort of getting from one end to the other – something to encourage people to leave the car behind and walk.”
Ben comments, “It’s not just about art though – we want to add benches, trees, better transport links and traffic calming measures – but it’s a matter of working out where the money can best be used.
Ben believes the awarded funds won’t last more than a year, making it crucial to set things in place that will generate more money for the area and make the improvements sustainable. “We don’t want it to be the case that we hold a few events, and then people look back at them and think, ‘Well, that was nice,’” he says. “To make it sustainable we need to make Bedminster a Business Improvements District – whereby businesses pay around 1% on top of their usual business rates, generating between £100,000 and £150,000 per year that can then go towards funding whatever the businesses see as improving their area, whether that’s public art or more community police officers.”
It’s a system that already works well in other parts of the UK, as well as in Bristol’s Cabot Circus.
The decision over whether to implement this will be made through a vote organised by Bristol City Council, and cast by the businesses themselves. With the vote set to take place in Spring 2013, the proposed innovations need to produce recognisable results by that time to motivate traders to go for this.
“Our community is saturated with great ideas,” says Glen. “The challenge is picking the ones which fulfil the initial brief, and then work out how to develop, sustain and refresh them to keep a vibrancy in the air.”
However Bedminster Town Team go about improving their area, the rest of Bristol may well be able to glean some ideas, get inspired, and follow suit, making a better, brighter Bedminster better into a better, brighter Bristol that will benefit us all.
Find out more at bedminstertownteam.org